01/17/2012 07:50 am ET Updated Mar 18, 2012

Beijing's Boom Through a Boozy Haze

During my early days in Beijing, I would finish the late shift at China Daily and join the paper's foreign editors at a restaurant across the street known only as the Noodle Shop. It was a dingy place where the beer was cheap and the food suspect. The rumor was Chinese gangsters owned the Noodle Shop. I doubt it was true, but I passed it on to everyone I knew anyway.

Most nights it was packed with noisy and drunken locals, who sometimes stayed until dawn. Peanut shells and green pea pods littered the floor and bottles of beer collected on the tables by the dozens. Once I bit down on a chunk of denim in a bowl of beef noodles. After that, I stopped ordering food from the Noodle Shop.

We would gather around plastic tables, drinking four yuan (65¢) bottles of Tsingtao and the occasional shot of baijiu -- China's toxic "white liquor" -- and vent about work. As the evenings wore on, the younger members of the group would continue on to the bars and clubs in Sanlitun, Beijing's center of debauchery near Worker's Stadium.

Some nights, we'd visit a half-dozen bars, packed with foreigners and Chinese alike: dive bars, expensive bars, music bars, depressing bars, and massive, booming nightclubs that remained open until the last patrons went home. We would party until four in the morning and cap off the night eating Big Macs at the McDonald's down the road from China Daily.

You can track Beijing's boom through its nightlife. When I first got here, longtime expats liked to wax nostalgic about the old days of the city's nightlife, before the mega-clubs. Back then, a good night out largely meant huddling on plastic chairs outside crumbling bars, where people sipped bottles of lukewarm beer and "just got drunk," as one friend who had lived in Beijing for five years told me in 2007.

By the time I arrived, in April of that year, the city's nightlife was exploding. There were still dive bars, but many of the popular bar streets had been demolished. Bottles of Tsingtao were being swapped with bottles of Chivas, and many of the holes-in-the-wall were being replaced with lounges, cool hutong bars, and big, terrible clubs around Worker's Stadium. (The Noodle Shop later became a 7-11.)

Since then, the boom has continued unabated. Sometimes it feels like there's no keeping track of Beijing's nightlife. There are cocktail bars that make $10 drinks (Apothecary); nightclubs that have 200 yuan cover charges (Spark); after-hours clubs (Haze); bars that host 1920s-themed cabarets (Modernista). There's a Vampire-themed bar near my apartment, and few weekends ago I went to an Underground Rebel Bingo party at a music club. Don't even ask me to explain what that is.

The nightlife is one of my favorite things about Beijing. Live here long enough and you develop a massive group of friends who are all in the same boat as you - we're all here to experience as much as we can, so why stay home? It can feel like a small town within a metropolis, and a disproportionate amount of time is spent in bars.

You can also use Beijing's nightlife to track your own time here. When I first arrived, I would walk into a bar and not know a soul. It was exhilarating. Who are these people, I wanted to know, and why are they here?

A few years later, I did know. I'd walk into a bar and recognize dozens of people. Every weekend, somebody was organizing some sort of party. There were birthday parties, going away parties, friend-in-town-parties, (insert excuse for party here) parties. Beijing life seemed to be one big party.

But eventually, that starts to change. Friends leave, people settle down. That's a fact of life. The wave of foreigners that came to witness the build-up to the Olympics -- my wave -- are all hitting the crucial five-year mark. Real life beckons.

As my wave goes, we're being replaced by a new one - people coming to China from all over the world for the opportunities the country affords. They are excited and they are young. (Sometimes I feel like Matthew McConaughey in Dazed and Confused -- "I get older, they stay the same age." I'll be a club and look around and notice I'm the oldest person in my group −- by about five years. And I'm not even that old.)

But even after almost five years, I still sometimes get the thrill I used to feel when I first got here -- and during so many nights since. The thrill when you've got just the right group of people, and somebody ups the ante by ordering a bottle of baijiu after dinner. You wince, and feign like it's a bad idea, even though you know you want to partake.

And you do. And then you move on from dinner to some hole-in-the-wall -- one of the few still remaining -- order cheap bottles of Tsingtao, and, as my friend did when he got here a decade ago, proceed to "just get drunk."